This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Members of the Tacoma City Council can’t be blamed for wanting an outside look at the haunted ruin their budget has become.
The Earth seems to have opened and swallowed $31 million from the city’s general fund. In response, interim City Manager Ray Arellano has proposed layoffs that would leave public safety staggering. Of the 167 employees who’d lose their jobs under his plan, 100 would be members of the police and fire departments.
In the Fire Department, four engine companies would go. The Police Department faces shocking losses, including its gang unit and its entire community-policing program. Front-line officers would be reduced to racing from one crisis to the next; the department would likely be forced to sacrifice its lifesaving strategy of working with citizens to make their neighborhoods safer.
This isn’t merely a worst-case scenario; it’s a mortal threat to the city’s livability. Two decades of public safety initiatives could go down the drain.
That projected $31 million shortfall arises from last year’s Pollyanna budget assumptions and more recent bad news on city revenues. Jake Fey and other council members have pushed to hire an outside accountant to see if the numbers are really that bad. On Tuesday, the council agreed to the move.
Part of the idea is to persuade the police and fire unions that they must sacrifice some of the compensation they’ve won in recent contracts. Union leaders have their doubts about the depth of the problem, and the police union has already hired its own accountant to double-check what Arellano is saying.
But even if the shortfall turns out to be, say, $21 million, the cuts will be devastating unless the unions agree to give something up. City employees who don’t belong to unions are already in for serious pay cuts – as high as 9.5 percent for some managers.
Let’s put the blame where it belongs: on the council and city administrators, particularly recently departed City Manager Eric Anderson. They created this emergency, first by passing out generous pay raises, then by pretending the unions would give some of theirs back.
A year ago, Anderson built labor givebacks into the current budget. He assumed, for example, that the unions would embrace an across-the-board wage freeze. Guess what? The rank-and-file had better plans for their promised money.
The idea that Anderson cast some crafty spell on the council is belied by the fact that Fey saw through the wishful thinking and called the city manager on it. Fey’s colleagues bought into Anderson’s magical thinking.
Before that, the council persisted in passing out fat pay raises as the Great Recession kept getting Greater. That generosity alone accounts for most of the present crisis.
The reckoning has arrived. Tacoma’s leaders and unions must now accept whatever pain it takes to preserve the safety of the citizens they are pledged to serve. Whether the actual shortfall turns out to be catastrophic as it looks or merely a major disaster, this won’t be pretty.